Stephen Clarkson, guest contributor
The North American leaders’ summit gives us the first set of publicly observable results by which to judge the Canadian government’s new policy for the continent. For a year now, Ottawa has been trying out a significantly revised approach to its relations with the two other members of the North American Free Trade Agreement. After seven years of developing a much more profitable, interactive, and supportive relationship with Mexico — NAFTA itself did not cause the two countries to get much closer; it was the shock of border barriers imposed by Washington following 9/11 that drove Ottawa and Mexico City into much closer cooperation — the same economic, bureaucratic, and political elites who brought us free trade in the first place reversed course last summer. Their new line argued that Canada should distance itself from Mexico diplomatically in order to reconstruct its former special relationship with the United States.
The Guadalajara meeting confirms that the first wing of this new approach has been successfully implemented. Ottawa’s requirement that Mexicans travelling to Canada first have to obtain visas (by making their way to the bunker that serves as our embassy in Mexico City where they have to line up in the blazing sun if they happen to arrive at the few hours that the immigration office is open) has successfully insulted the Mexican government. This deliberate sabotaging of what had become Canada’s most promising new international relationship is consistent with Ottawa’s unwillingness to cooperate on expanding what had proven a successful program for bringing seasonal Mexican workers to fill Canadian labour market requirements.
According to the new strategy, this downgrading of relations with Mexico is to yield a new upgrading of those with United States. The proof of the pudding so far is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s capitulation to the Bush administration on softwood lumber has not prevented the imposition of new US duties. The Canadian embassy’s best efforts have not derailed the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative’s passport-at-the-border requirement. Nor has the new spirit of buddy bilateralism dissuaded Congress from imposing further protectionist measures, whether Country of Origin Labelling (which has devastated Canadian pork exports) or the widely discussed Buy America thrust of the Obama stimulus package (which has premiers and mayors across the country tearing out their hair).
The next set of publicly observable results will come in September when Harper will have a chance to show us how he — a former denier of global warming and salesman for dirty, tar sands oil — has re-established Ottawa’s once-upon a time special relationship with what is now a devoutly ecological Washington. He has successfully brought the Mexican relationship to a new low point. In a few weeks we will know whether the other side of this coin is a brightly renewed bilateral relationship or the further marginalization of a once-proud middle power made increasingly insignificant by its own self-destructive behaviour.
Stephen Harper has his work cut out for him.